We hear a lot these days about China’s rising threat to America, but just how dangerous is it? As part of an intensive effort to answer that question, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held an open hearing Thursday on “China’s Worldwide Military Expansion.” It was a riveting two hours, crammed with credible, well-documented testimony about China’s plans to wield both military and economic means to transform itself over the next three decades into the dominant world power — an ambition that could translate much sooner into war.
Committee Chairman Devin Nunes warned that decades of U.S. appeasement have failed to improve China’s relations with the U.S. Instead, said Nunes, “China has only become emboldened and may now be the preeminent threat to American security, our economy , and our values.” The entire hearing is well worth watching; a video is available on the committee web site. All the written statements are worth reading in full, and an excellent summary of the hearing can be found in Bill Gertz’s dispatch, in the Free Beacon, headlined “China ‘Dream’ is Global Hegemony.”
But I’d like to draw attention here to the testimony of one witness in particular: retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell. Prior to his retirement in 2015, Fanell served as director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
I have the good fortune to know Jim Fanell, though it’s a relatively short acquaintance. In 2016 I coauthored an article with him, on the need for tougher U.S. pushback against China’s maritime misconduct (the expertise was his, my contribution was as a reporter and Op-ed writer). But that is not why I mention him here. I am doing that because I have read his written testimony, and it is a tour de force — the kind of warning that will either be heeded now, or historians will look back on it someday, and ask why America’s politicians and leaders, who had the power to act before it was too late, failed to listen.
For this hearing, Fanell produced a written statement so clear, thorough and profoundly alarming that it deserves much more than simply being entered into the congressional record. It deserves to be adopted as a primary text for anyone trying to understand what China is doing today, where China is heading and why it is so dangerous.
Most to the point, Fanell’s statement deserves a wide reading by an American public that would surely wish to avoid a 21st century variation on Pearl Harbor. Fanell explains in meticulous and persuasive detail why it is becoming mortally important for the U.S. to begin taking major actions now “to avoid geo-political defeat globally and a likely naval disaster, the likes of which we have not experienced since the early, dark days of World War II.”
Fanell’s statement runs to 64 pages, every one of them a gripping read. As he says at the start, introducing himself as a Navy intelligence officer by trade, he’s a different kind of China hand from the experts who usually testify to Congress:
My expertise is not in interpreting what Chinese Communist Party officials really think, or analyzing what think tank scholars say. Instead, I spent 28 years watching what China does with its navy — like Jane Goodall watching gorillas — every day, observing and recording their movements. Then I analyzed their activities and projected what they’ll do next. Today I will share my projections regarding China and its increasing — and increasingly threatening — global expansion.
In this statement, Fanell draws on open sources. Anyone can look up the information he provides, and we have all seen smatterings of it, or even great heaping doses, spread through the news. He brings it all together. Here is his summary of the menace of the “China Dream” that Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled in a speech in 2013:
If one has not read Xi Jingping’s words and realized the supremacist nature of the “China Dream” and carefully watched the nature of China’s “rise,” then one might innocently ask the obvious question: “Why does it matter that the PRC seeks regional or even global hegemony?”
That is, why can’t the world simply abide a “rising China,” a seemingly benign term so often employed by Beijing’s propaganda organs and PRC supporters worldwide. After all, fewer would be concerned if, say, a “rising Brazil” or a “rising India” sought regional hegemony and proclaimed a desire to “lead the world into the 21st century.”
The answer goes to the heart of the nature of China’s leadership, and what it does. Under the [Chinese Communist Party] the PRC is an expansionist, coercive, hyper-nationalistic, military and economically powerful, brutally repressive, totalitarian state.
The world has seen what happens when expansionist totalitarian regimes such as this are left unchallenged and unchecked.
Explaining why China’s rapidly expanding navy “is China’s point of the spear in its quest for global hegemony,” Fanell walks us through China’s military modernization, and its navy’s transition from a coastal force into a blue water navy — an expansion that so far, from 2000-2018, “far exceeds the buildup in any other nation’s navy in the post-World War II era, save for the U.S. Navy during the Ronald W. Reagan years of the 1980s.” He warns that on current course, China in 12 years “will most likely have twice as many warships and submarines as the U.S. Navy.” He details how China is snapping up control of ports around the globe, “using state-owned companies and politically-linked private firms” to create, under the label of commercial use, “a network of facilities designed to provide logistical support” to Chinese warships.
There is far more to this testimony, in which Fanell covers everything from China’s territorial grabs in the South China Sea, to its military base in Djibouti (“choke point for the Suez Canal and Red Sea”), to its interests in Namibia — where China General Nuclear owns 90% of the world’s second-largest uranium mine, and China is supplying weapons and training to the Namibian military and building them a new military academy. Fanell reminds Congress that all of the U.S., including the Capitol Building, is now in range of Chinese submarines. He notes that since 2012, China’s navy has been conducting joint exercises with the Russians, operating in the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Mediterranean and the Baltic.
Timelines figure large in this analysis, and from these Fanell draws chilling conclusions. He points to the year 2049 — the 100th anniversary of Mao’s founding of the People’s Republic — as the year China’s regime aims to achieve its “dream” of global hegemony. He warns that while China would prefer to get what it wants without resorting to force, it will be willing to do so, and is preparing accordingly. Already, he writes, China’s navy “has the capability to conduct a short, sharp war to fulfill its pledge of taking Japan’s Senkaku Islands.” Fanell tells us that “the U.S. and allies have insufficient capabilities in the region and could easily lose a conventional war in the Senkakus if China strikes first.”
Fanell also specifies that the year 2020 — less than two years from now — is the deadline Xi Jinping has given his military to be ready to invade Taiwan, and “From that point on, we can expect China to strike.”
He extrapolates from all this, and much more besides, that the imminent new decade of 2020-2030 will be a period of great danger. He dubs this fast approaching interval “The Decade of Concern.” His reasoning is that China’s regime has “very likely calculated” that if it uses military force by the year 2030 at the latest, then by the time the grand celebratory target year of the China Dream rolls around, 19 years later, in 2049, the world will have forgotten whatever slaughter China might carry out within the next 12 years from where we are now. Fanell bases this calculation, reasonably enough, on the time it took for the world to forget its shock over China’s use of its military in 1989 to crush the Tiananmen uprising by slaughtering its own people. Nineteen years later, he observes, China’s Party rulers were hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, coolly gazing down from their air-conditioned skybox at the American president, seated below them, in his sweat-stained shirt — who went on to praise them for their “spectacular and successful” Olympic Games.
Having laid out the evidence that the growing strategic gap between the U.S. and Chinese navies is on the verge of “exploding” over the next decade and a half, Fanell offers seven recommendations, with the bottom-line that America needs to massively rebuild its shrunken navy, and “get back to being a maritime power supported militarily by strong allies.”
Without that, expect China to push us ever further from Asia. Expect to lose more allies and influence across the Indo-Pacific, and ultimately to be seen as irrelevant globally, with all the negative consequences associated for our national security interests and the defense of our values.
We have already slipped. If we fall any further, we may not recover.
Please, for the sake of America, and future of generations of the world, read the entire written statement.